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The Problem with Hulu

Hulu is a joint venture between The Walt Disney Company (ABC), 21st Century Fox (FOX), Comcast (NBC) and Time Warner (Turner Broadcasting). Accordingly, you can surmise that it is kind of a cluster fuck as to what it really wants to be. Is it a broadcast network? Is it a broadcast network on the Internet? Is it a genuine streaming service? Is it commercial free? Is it not commercial free?

And, as if there weren’t already enough fingers in the pie with Hulu, in a partnership with Yahoo, free Hulu is now called Yahoo View. So, basically, Hulu has five partners (with varying percentages of ownership) and three different tiers. One, the free one with commercials in partnership with Yahoo. Two, the $7.99/mo Limited Commercials Plan (even though a few series will retain full length pre-show and post show commercial pods or breaks) and the $11.99/mo No Commercials Plan.

I first watched shows on Hulu sometime in 2010. Back then streaming was not what it is today and Hulu was very far from commercial free. It used to infuriate me that I had to sit through 2:00 of commercials before, two breaks during and a commercial break after a show on Hulu (there was no commercial free tier). At the time I worked at NBC (in the bowels of the entertainment industry) and Hulu was genuinely pitched to us as the streaming answer. Hulu was the future of television!

While I certainly believed streaming was indeed the future of television (still do), I would sit at my desk and grumble “Not with those fuckin commercials.” 

The problem I felt (and feel) is that if I am already paying for access to the Internet (which is expensive enough) then it’s up to the companies involved in both the content and distribution to battle it out and decide how to parse out the revenue behind the scenes. A pretty presumptuous thought apparently. So, of course, I was (still am) a vociferous opponent to commercials being part of the streaming experience.

Even though I worked at NBC, I didn’t know anyone at Hulu (again, I was in the bowels) and my colleagues would entertain me and kindly listen as I blathered on about how no one wants television to be the same on the Internet as it is with broadcast. Some would even agree with me but most considered any programming, anywhere, devoid of commercials complete heresy. This was television after all. There has to be commercials. It’s the way it has always been. Back in 2010, the prevailing thought in the industry was that streaming would naturally have commercials.  

HA!

Fast forward seven or eight years and streaming services, and products, have begun to find their places (we’re still really at the beginning of this, it’s why Net Neutrality matters). While I am not particularly keen on the way it is shaking out, it’s not too awful (at least for now). With the success of Netflix, Amazon Prime and even TiVo, it would appear as though most people agree that commercials shouldn’t be part of the streaming experience.  

Except Hulu. 

It’s not that Hulu doesn’t offer a commercial free option. It does. And it’s not that the three tiers it offers doesn’t make business sense for the monoliths that own it. It makes sense. 

It’s not that the quality of the original shows on Hulu lack anything, they don’t. Of the three I have seen, Handmaids Tale deserves all the accolades and awards it has received, The Path is very well written and Chance is also effective (even if the first season of Chance is dreadfully slow). If you enjoy their respective genre’s, then these high-caliber shows are worthy of the most precious thing you have to offer, your time.

My problem with Hulu is how they stream the shows. 

Whether it is original content or already aired content, and regardless of the tier you have, it appears as though your show will be interrupted. Maybe not by commercials specifically, but the program will be interrupted. 

I am currently on a 30-day Commercial Free trial and, maybe it is because of that, during both The Path and Chance (I watched Handmaids Tale a little more creatively), there are breaks in the show and a black screen appears for a few seconds. I presume this is where the commercials go on the other two tiers of Hulu. 

That’s disruptive.

No, it doesn’t completely remove you from the narrative but it can be a little jarring. It can potentially make for confusing plot points. For arguments sake, let’s take a very simple and common scenario in scripted programming; a scene ends at night and then an edit places the next scene in the afternoon. 

Now, on traditional broadcast television, or on the two lower tiers of Hulu, if a scene ends at night, you cut to x minutes of commercials and come back to a scene in the afternoon. Fine, the break allows the brain to adjust to the interruption and therefore doesn’t have any difficulty making that transition from night to afternoon. The commercials disrupt the flow, which is sorta what commercials are designed to do, and the brain can accept that scene switch; as long as it’s not a radical disruption to the overall narrative.

However, seen without commercials on Hulu’s “no commercial” tier, and with just the seconds of black, it doesn’t flow as well. Those seconds of black are calling attention to the interruption and the separation of the scenes. What adjustment and transition the brain can allow for with x minutes of commercials in between scenes, it may have a more difficult time doing in just a few seconds of black screen. Therein runs the potential of losing the gravitas of the shot or the scene or, even worse, the story. 

Now to be fair, the other platforms also have shows, both original and rebroadcast, that have scenes that may end at night and then cut to an afternoon. Again, a common scenario. But the difference is that it is (usually) less visually jarring because you’re not being jammed with a few seconds of black in your face. It simply is easier for the brain to process when you flow right into it. Psychologically, you can accept and believe that night leads to day, or to afternoon, and of course this is where the story would logically pick up. Those transitions are easier to accept because there is nothing calling attention to the interruption.

Of course, I don’t mean to imply that all shows must be put together in such a way as to explain every nuance that moves the story forward. I also don’t mean to imply that television shows should be put together like a Michael Bay movie where you have edits so fast that you literally have no clue what is going on, where you are or what you’re looking at, but none of that matters because there are good-looking people, boobs and shit is blowing up, you can just pump your hand and say “FUCK YEA!”

There is a happy medium.

There has to be some trust that the audience will understand the symbiotic relationship between editing and plot movement. And that relationship should attempt to be, most of the time, seamless. 

In almost everything I have seen so far on Hulu, these seconds of black didn’t remove me from, or ruin, the story taking place. It did cause a couple of seconds of “huh?” and I did notice a few story inconsistencies that would have probably gone unnoticed, but nothing egregious…the cuts to black just seem so…noticeable. Can you imagine watching Stranger Things and periodically being interrupted with a few seconds of black…that weren’t part of the narrative?

I found the breaks of black less obtrusive during Family Guy episodes. I suspect this has to do with my understanding that the show is already on commercial television so the break is expected and therefore accepted (begrudgingly).

Like the original programming of their competitors, the original programming on Hulu should be put together, and broadcast, in such a way as to avoid any disruption other than disruption designed by the show’s creators. And this should certainly be the case for all content on Hulu’s no commercial tier.

I can understand from a business perspective that it makes sense to edit a show only once and then be able to place it on their three tiers. I get it. I may believe that to be sloppy, short-sighted and disrespectful to viewers, but sure, I get it.  

This may seem petty. I understand. And I suspect most viewers either don’t notice or simply don’t care all that much. But I would posit that viewers have never been given a reason to care that much. When in television history have viewers had this much choice? When have viewers been exposed to so much high quality programming? I would also submit that as these shows continue to increase in quality (well, that is my hope anyway), that streaming viewers will become more discerning and less tolerant of the kind of shit like…say, seconds of black interrupting a show.  

We’re living in a period of “prestige television” (kind of a pretentious title, but OK, I’ll buy it) and many of the shows being broadcast, regardless of delivery method, reflect that. And most delivery methods appear to be somewhat sensitive to that (some platforms are better than others) and most make an effort to deliver the content in the best possible way for the best possible visual and narrative experience.

Except Hulu.

The content on Hulu, especially their original content, deserves a better viewing experience. And for $11.99/mo you should be presented with content that is not just commercial free, but uninterrupted. If you are paying for a commercial free experience, you should receive an uninterrupted experience. There shouldn’t have to be a distinction between commercial free and uninterrupted.   

Maybe this is because I am on the 30 day free trial and those disruptive seconds of black disappear once you become a paid member, I dunno.

I’ll never find out.